University of Sussex Review of 2010

It's been an eventful year, to put it mildly.

From extreme "weather events" to seismic changes in politics and the continuing saga of the economy, 2010 in the UK has been a rollercoaster ride, with the media clinging to its coat tails in search of newsworthy thrills.

Higher Education has also been in the spotlight as never before, with politicians and protestors hammering home their arguments about the role and value of a university education.

Those debates continue to be played out in Parliament and through protest, but occasionally the media focused on other university stories.

Here follow some of the highlights of 2010 at the University of Sussex.

Let it snow...

Campus got off to a picture postcard if not perfect start, with heavy snow that closed roads, schools, businesses and campus for a couple of days. Continuing on the frosty theme, Dr Julian Murton (Geography), who usually studies permafrost and its effect on the environment, helped the BBC to explain the scientific cause behind the thousands of potholes that appeared on UK roads after this year's big freeze. The interview led to a starring role in Inside Out's 'Wild Weather of the South East' on BBC 1 in September.

With snow and ice forecast for the year's end, it could be that Dr Murton will be in demand again for ice-related news items.

On the up

Sussex is the place to be. As financial doom and gloom were making the headlines, the University of Sussex saw a rise in its stock off the back of a run of positive facts and figures during a challenging period of cost-cutting and belt-tightening. In February the University announced that applications had rocketed by 32 per cent - well above the national average, while the new national survey of student opinion, the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, ranked the University sixth in the UK for its teaching and learning.

Sussex also shone in the league tables, with Sussex ranked 21st (up 14 places from 35 in The Times Good University Guide 2011) ; up to 15th in the Guardian University Guide; up to 19th in the Independent's Complete University Guide; and then placed 8th in the UK, 16th in Europe and 79th in the world in the Times Higher Education magazine's 2010-2011 World University Rankings.

And in August, the 2010 National Student Survey revealed that 90 per cent of University of Sussex students were satisfied with their place of study. The result improved Sussex's place in the ratings from 35th in 2009 to 7th.

The University's contribution to the region's economy was also highlighted in a report in October that revealed that Sussex helped to generate £1bn in income for the South East.

Talking heads

University of Sussex academics were much in demand as expert commentators during the year. The man with arguably the busiest media diary was Professor Tim Bale (Politics), who began the year with the publication of his very well-received book, The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron. With the election of Cameron as Prime Minister, and the ensuing drama of Gordon Brown's departure and the formation of a coalition government, Professor Bale was called on by, among many others, Wall Street Journal, BBC Breakfast News, The Financial Times, the Guardian, The Times, Bloomberg News, Panorama, Sky News, Five Live, the Washington Post, the Independent on Sunday and Reuters for his informed opinion. Fellow politics professor Paul Taggart became a regular fixture on BBC Sussex radio, answering questions on all the hot topics, from the General Election to cuts, proportional representation and the recording of off-guard remarks on the coalition and the media made by Lib Dems Vince Cable and Norman Baker.

The world's growing demands on energy resources at a time of deepening supply problems was the subject that brought the media to Professor Gordon MacKerron's (Sussex Energy Group, SPRU) door. As a member of an expert panel for The Daily Telegraph's Shell Age of Energy debate, Professor Mackerron examined how we might fill the looming 'energy gap' that is currently haunting policymakers. In January, Professor Mackerron talked about radioactive waste management on the BBC's flagship environment programme Countryfile and in November he took part in the BBC Four TV programme The Secret Life of the National Grid, talking about the history of nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s.

Professor Andy Stirling (SPRU), Professor Melissa Leach and Professor John Thompson (both Institute of Development Studies) discussed the role of science and technology in agriculture for a special Financial Times report in October, while International Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Chris Marlin and Professor Alasdair Smith (Economics) contributed to media items on how the introduction of immigration controls would impact on universities and the finer points of Lord Browne's proposals for funding students in Higher Education.

Andy Stirling (Sussex Energy Group, SPRU) was more than a match for presenter Michael Buerk in June, when he guested on BBC Radio 4's ethical debate programme The Moral Maze, where he discussed the role of the precautionary principle in relation to controversial issues such as oil exploration, MMR, nuclear power, research on the human genome, GM crops and climate change.

Other diverse subjects to which Sussex academics gave the benefit of their learning included the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton (historian Dr Claire Langhamer provided a socio-historic perspective for BBC Sussex radio);  a statistical analysis of pass-rate claims by driving schools (Mathematics Emeritus and statistician Dr John Haigh for BBC One's consumer show Watchdog, in November); science education, teacher training and classroom politics (James Williams, for a variety of news media, including the Brighton Argus Opinion page, the Times Higher magazine and BBC South East TV); the US mid-term elections (International Relations' Professor Cynthia Weber, for BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour); and it was a case of plain sailing for Tom Healy (English)  as he discoursed across the airwaves on the history of metaphor for Melvyn Bragg's BBC Radio 4 intellectual discussion programme In Our Time.

And bringing a few learned chuckles to a predominantly gloomy news year, cultural commentator Andy Medhurst (Media and Film) appeared on the BBC Four documentary series Rude Britannia in June, looking at the history of the British penchant for "smutty" humour.

Research notes

An eclectic range of research gems caught the magpie eye of the Press - here are just a few of the year's highlights:

In the year of the protest, psychologist Dr John Drury was called on to explain crowd behaviour and management to, among others, Company magazine (article on the cuts protests to appear in 2011); the magazine The Psychologist about the psychological effect on the Chilean miners of being trapped underground; and a major story for Scientific American's December issue of Mind, focusing on how people are more compassionate in emergencies, choosing to help others before themselves.

Professor Carol Dyhouse (History) and her book Glamour: Women History, Feminism,  proved an irresistible proposition for the media, leading to appearances and articles for BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the BBC World Service and numerous women's magazines.

Professor Mike Hutchings' (Biology) 150-year-old collection of pressed orchids offered vital clues to the study of climate change, a perennial subject of interest to the media, and earned him an honourable mention on Radio 4's Today programme and a lengthy article in Sussex Society magazine.

Andrew Newell (Economics) and Dr Ian Gazeley  (History) began a two-year project in January to digitise and analyse records charting the change in British living standards over the past 40 years  - the stuff of articles to come, we think, although The Daily Telegraph was quick off the mark to see the potential for a feature back in January.

One of the big art occasions of the year - a retrospective of work by the iconic British sculptor Henry Moore - led to an interesting discovery for Professor David Alan Mellor (Art History). He realised that some of Henry Moore's drawings of the Blitz were taken from magazine photos rather than from his own experience.  Professor Mellor makes the connection for an essay to accompany an exhibition of the artists' work and was featured in the Sunday Telegraph in February.

Pioneering research being carried out by neuroscientist Anil Seth into the science of human consciousness led to the founding of a major new research centre at Sussex in April. The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science is one of only a few such centres in the world funded by the pharmaceuticals mogul, the late Mortimer Sackler. The news was reported in the New Scientist and Times Higher magazines, applauded in The Times by science writer Sathnam Sanghera in May April and was made the subject of a lengthy interview with Dr Seth in the Observer.  

There was a flurry of interest, too, around groundbreaking work past and present, with Professor Sir Harry Kroto's Nobel Prize-winning buckyball research named in June in a poll for Universities Week as one of the ten most important discoveries made at UK universities in the past 60 years. In December,  while Somnath Mukhopadhyay's (BSMS) work on childhood asthma was featured in Robert Winston's BBC1 programme How Science Changed Our World.

Technological breakthroughs excited the sector press during the year, thanks to partnerships between Sussex research and industry. In December, specialist electronics firm Plessey Semiconductors Ltd signed a deal to develop new non-contact sensors that can detect a heartbeat through a wall - the result of research by Professor Robert Prance and Dr Helen Prance. Many exciting applications for the technology now beckon.

Medical Electronics bloggers were all a twitter for Sussex's groundbreaking new software that can produce prognostic information from diagnostic body images of cancer patients. The technology, known as TexRAD, can extract and quantify 'hidden' information from existing scans (CT, MRI, etc.), thereby increasing considerably the depth of information given by radiological images.

Out and about

During 2010 Sussex challenged the "ivory tower" view of a university with a series of highly successful public events beyond the campus, which attracted plenty of audiences and media attention.

Sussex staff were involved in one of Brighton Festival's biggest successes, Dreamthinkspeak's Before I Sleep, a magical "walk through" multimedia show at the former Co-op building in Brighton and based on Anton Chekov's play The Cherry Orchard. Media and Film Senior Lecturer and practitioner Kirk Woolford, technician and tutor Kevin Clarke and Media and Film student Will Steer filmed special sequences in Stanmer Woods for the production with director Tristan Sharps to provide a backdrop for the show. Meanwhile, Dr Natalia Beloff, a Senior Lecturer in software engineering, displayed her theatrical side as a performer in the production.

Product Design graduate Dan Headden redesigned a tube-train interior that could help to improve the experience of travelling on the London Underground, which was a hit with regional and national media, including a live spot on the Paul Ross and Gabby Roslin BBC Radio London Breakfast Show. Dan's design was one of several eye-catching innovations exhibited at the University's 2010 Product Design Degree Show and featured

DPhil Music student Julian Philips' new opera, Knight Crew, was the subject of a new TV reality series - BBC 2's Gavin Malone Goes to Glyndebourne - in which young people learned to love opera and singing by taking part in its premiere at Sussex opera house Glyndebourne.

The BBC was also enthralled, during the year of the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, by Dr Ed Hughes' (Music) new composition Dark Formations ( used to accompany rarely-viewed images from the Imperial War Museum of Second World War of Allied bombing raids on Germany), for a special concert in London.

Academics turned out as performers once more for the Ropetackle centre's Art of Science Festival in Shoreham in October. Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing (partnered by his brother, the artist Stephen Farthing and students from Shoreham Academy); neuroscientist Anil Seth (partnered by the guitarist Richard Durrant and artist Kate Genevieve); geneticist Alan Lehmann (partnered by installation and projection artist Malcolm Buchanan-Dick) and epidemiologist Jackie Cassell (ably supported by students from Northbrook College ) wowed audiences with their entertaining and eye-catching lectures on, respectively, the human gut, the wonders of neuroscience in creativity; the story of DNA and the secrets that our GP records reveal about human health.

Bringing science to the public is a recurring theme of 2010. In June,  Dr Andrew Philippides (Informatics) and Dr Paul Graham (Life Sciences) from the University's Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics (CCNR) showed visitors to the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition in London the surprisingly complex mechanisms used by ants as they navigate back home from foraging expeditions. And how did they get the participating ants to show off their navigational skills? It's all down to the allure of a little bit of sugar syrup.

The fascinating world of ants, honey bees and other tiny insects brought a lot of media attention to Sussex and its Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects during 2010. Professor Francis Ratnieks and his team hosted visits from, among others, BBC 1's The One Show; waggle dance research donors Waitrose; and more than 50 delegates from commerce and industry, farming, environmental groups, politics and the media, who attended LASI's first bee summit, explaining the latest research taking place at Sussex.  The year also saw LASI link up with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, for a honey bee project looking at flower foraging, reported on in a fulsome article in Kew Magazine's summer edition. Watch out also for LASI's appearance on a new BBC TV show in January 2011, hosted by celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott, who dropped in to LASI to film for The Great British Food Revival. A grateful Ainsely thanked the team by donating a honey-based recipe to the LASI web site

Sussex lecturers were also active in the Brighton Science Festival, and helped to re-introduce the concept of intellectual debate as entertainment with the Sussex Salon series of roundtable discussions, ranging in subject from coalition government to patients as medical experts, complete with audience participation, at the Dome in Brighton.  The series was organised by sociologist Dr Ruth Woodfield from the School of Law, Politics and Sociology

When it comes to outreach, however, no one goes further than the University's physics researchers, who continue to make discoveries in the far reaches of Space, and through the smallest particles known to Man.

Amazing new views of distant galaxies as they were billions of years ago, provided by the Herschel Space Observatory, were released in July by a team of scientists led by University of Sussex astrophysicist Seb Oliver.

Professor Oliver was also involved in observation of data from the Hubble space telescope, which revealed that one of the most famous supermassive black holes is on the move.  The discovery will help scientists refine their understanding of how galaxies are made and how they evolve.

And in March, physicists from the University of Sussex working on data from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, led by Dr Antonella De Santo, celebrated  the launch of a new phase of the biggest particle physics experiment ever constructed that will shed new light on the nature of our Universe and its birth.

The Mass Observation Archive - a unique and fascinating archive of diaries and observations recounting everyday life, continues to be a source of fascination for the entertainment industry. Comedy performers Victoria Wood and Rory Bremner leafed through the archive papers for a BBC series, Dear Diary, focusing on the diaries of Mass Observation writer Nella Last, the inspiration behind Victoria Wood's Bafta Award-winning drama, Housewife, 49. Hollywood came to the Archive in the summer, when film director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void, State of Play) paid a visit to the Archive. There he joined Head of Special Collections Fiona Courage for a tour, which was filmed and posted on YouTube and which has been viewed by nearly 400,000 times. The Archive was the inspiration for a film made up of video diary entries recording everyday events around the world on 12 July 2010. Entries were loaded on to YouTube, then edited, produced and directed by Kevin and fellow director Ridley Scott (Bladerunner, Gladiator). The resulting film, Life in a Day, will be premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011.  

Among other VIP guests, the University hosted a visit in March by the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband to electric car company Elektromotive at the University's Sussex Innovation Centre.

Building the future

The University kept its focus on the horizon during the year by forging ahead with its campus development plan, to bring the University up to 21st-century expectations. During 2010 the new teaching building, Fulton, opened, while work continued apace on new residences on Northfield, the new academic building (replacing old teaching buildings) and campus services in Bramber House.  All the projects are part of a carefully developed 10-year strategy for modernising student facilities on campus. At the same time, Brighton and Hove Albion FC's new football stadium at Falmer began to take shape, along with a new road system, creating new access and exit routes for campus traffic.

The promise of a brave new world of technology is the inspiration behind another University collaboration, this time in Brighton, one of the UK's new media hotspots. In October, Brighton and Hove councillors approved plans for a £9.5m revamp of an industrial tower block, New England House, to form a centre for digital-media firms. The council is working on the scheme with the University of Sussex and Wired Sussex. The revamp will provide much-needed premises for Brighton's expanding digital-media and creative industries, which are also key growth areas for University research. The development will also create around 200 jobs.

The University's role in the heritage of Sussex has also been recognised with the development of the Keep, a new repository for the county's archives, which will also house the University library's esteemed Special Collections, including the letters and personal papers of writers Virginia Woolf and Rudyard Kipling and the Mass-Observation Archive.  The Keep, which will be funded by East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council, is being developed in partnership with the University and will cost £19m to build. Planning permission for the building, which will be near the University in Woollards Field near Falmer, was granted in early December.

The global economic downturn couldn't halt the march of progress on campus during 2010 - but seagulls in June did. When it was found that herring gull chicks were being reared on the roof of one of the old Arts buildings about to make way for the new academic building, demolition work was suspended until the chicks had flown the nest.

Time to go...

And as another year at Sussex draws to a close, the University reflects on a very high-ranking hero's choice of career path. In April, the Guardian featured a quote from actor and former Dr Who Tom Baker, from an interview he gave on satellite channel Sky Arts. Baker suggests that "but for a quirk of fate, the Timelord would have been lecturing in the humanities at Sussex University".

So, fighting intergalactic evil in a time-hopping police box, or marking Eng Lit essays in Arts A - it must have been a tough call, Tom.

The Press office wishes all colleagues, contacts and readers a very Happy New Year.

Notes for editors


University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune, Jacqui Bealing and Daniëlle Treanor. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Thursday, 23 December 2010